Some thoughts on Memory Palaces

Photo Credit: Riccardo Cuppini
Photo Credit: Riccardo Cuppini

A memory palace, or the Method of Loci is a memory enhancement technique which can be used to help guide the remembrance of facts, figures, dates or information strings. The method goes back to ancient Rome and Greece and has been most prominently featured in the recent BBC adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes series in ‘Sherlock’.

By constructing a physical location in your mind and using mnemonics, mental imagery and learned associations, we can fill these ‘palaces’ with pathways of information to be recalled by ‘walking’ through these spaces (or perhaps floating, or swimming – whichever you find works best for you).

This technique works so well because our ability to remember geographical places can often be stronger than that used to memorise random strings of information. I realised when considering this that I can recall vast amounts of information about places several years into the past. I can also remember clearly layout, decor, objects, floor-plans, doorways, windows and exits of physical spaces I have only witnessed once. Strangely, I can also picture in huge detail geographical places which do not even exist: that my mind has created in a dream or while reading a book, or that I have seen on television or in a film.

Think of a space in your mind, somewhere you can recall in detail, perhaps a bedroom, office or classroom. Reclaim this space in your mind, wander around and investigate it in detail. After some time, the mind can use this space as a form of storage where we can begin to place items or objects which will allow us to recall information when needed. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical object either, colours or sounds can also be used as a more abstract way of remembrance. It is simpler to start small and begin with just one place you are able to recall easily. With time, you might wish to extend or create additional spaces to use for even larger storage.

The use of mnemonics is a neat trick to recall information that those without an eidetic ‘photographic’ memory can make use of to ‘store’ information in remembered physical locations. I would be very interested to see how photographic memory compares or perhaps improves the method of loci. My brother will often be able to provide me with a date many years in the past and describe what happened on that day, who we saw or what we did. I remember a time recently where he pointed to a jumper in my wardrobe and told me the exact day I bought it and where from, many years after the fact. Unfortunately his Autism means that he would not feel comfortable sharing the context or processes behind such magnificent eidetic memory, it would be an incredible insight into his memories if he were able to. Perhaps it is quite similar to the visual location-based mapping of memory palaces?

What is also interesting about memory palaces is that they appear very similar to how computers have been created to store information. Some palaces can be used for ‘cold storage’ and have even been shown to be recalled many years after their initial creation, while others can be used for information required in the short-term: phone numbers or addresses for example.

Although I am a relative newcomer to the usage of this technique, I will certainly be considering the practical uses for the development of memory palaces as ‘storage’ for memories or chains of information to be remembered on call and should like to write a follow-up post once I have some more real-life examples to give.

If you wish to read more about the practicalities of memory palace formation, this Tumblr post from AnotherBoyWhoLived appears to be a fantastic starting point.